Tuesday, April 3, 2018
Yesterday, the US Supreme Court decided Encino Motorcars v. Navarro in a way that rejected past precedent requiring courts to read FLSA’s statutory exemptions narrowly. In a 5-4 ruling, the Court ruled that FLSA exempts a service adviser at a car dealership from its overtime protections under the exemption for “any salesman . . . primarily engaged in . . . servicing automobiles.” 29 U.S.C. § 213(b)(10)(A).
In doing so, however, Justice Thomas, writing for the majority, rejected the general “principle that exemptions to the FLSA should be construed narrowly.” Encino, Slip Op. at 9. Here’s his reasoning:
We reject this principle as a useful guidepost for interpreting the FLSA. Because the FLSA gives no “textual indication” that its exemptions should be construed narrowly, “there is no reason to give [them] anything other than a fair (rather than a ‘narrow’) interpretation.” Scalia, Reading Law, at 363. The narrow construction principle relies on the flawed premise that the FLSA “‘pursues’” its remedial purpose “‘at all costs.’” American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant, 570 U. S. 228, 234 (2013) (quoting Rodriguez v. United States, 480 U. S. 522, 525-526 (1987) (per curiam)); see also Henson v. Santander Consumer USA Inc., 582 U. S. ___, ___ (2017) (slip op., at 9) (“[I]t is quite mistaken to assume . . . that whatever might appear to further the statute’s primary objective must be the law” (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted)). But the FLSA has over two dozen exemptions in § 213(b) alone, including the one at issue here. Those exemptions are as much a part of the FLSA’s purpose as the overtime-pay requirement. See id., at ___ (slip op., at 9) (“Legislation is, after all, the art of compromise, the limitations expressed in statutory terms often the price of passage”). We thus have no license to give the exemption anything but a fair reading.
In so reasoning, Justice Thomas’s majority opinion didn’t “acknowledg[e] that it unsettles more than half a century of our precedent.” Dissent of Justice Ginsburg, Slip. Op. at 9-10 n.7. See A.H. Phillips, Inc. v. Walling, 324 U.S. 490, 493 (1945) (FLSA “was designed ‘to extend the frontiers of social progress’ by ‘insuring to all our able-bodied working men and women a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.’ Message of the President to Congress, May 24, 1934. Any exemption from such humanitarian and remedial legislation must therefore be narrowly construed, giving due regard to the plain meaning of statutory language and the intent of Congress. To extend an exemption to other than those plainly and unmistakably within its terms and spirit is to abuse the interpretative process and to frustrate the announced will of the people.”); accord Citicorp Industrial Credit Co. v. Brock, 483 U.S. 27, 35 (1987); Mitchell v. Kentucky Finance Co., 359 U.S. 290, 295 (1959)(“It is well settled that exemptions from the Fair Labor Standards Act are to be narrowly construed.”)(citations omitted). In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg called this FLSA precedent a “well-grounded application of the general rule that an ‘exception to a general statement of policy is usually read . . . narrowly in order to preserve the primary operation of the provision.’” Dissent Slip. Op. at 9 n.7 (quoting Maracich v. Spears, 570 U.S. 48, 60 (2013)).
Management-side lawyers will likely now invoke Encino often in FLSA exemption litigation. But, it’s hard to know how much this will affect FLSA case outcomes, because it’s unclear how much the “narrowly-read FLSA exemptions” rule had affected FLSA case outcomes in any event, that is, how often that rule operated as makeweight versus a genuine tie-breaker.
More puzzling: The Court could have easily sidestepped the issue by saying that, given the strength of all the other reasons to read § 213(b)(10)(A) the way it did, there was, in this case, really no tie for the “narrowly-read FLSA exemptions” rule to break. Instead, the Court’s majority seems to have wanted to overrule this prior FLSA precedent but without expressly saying that it was directly overruling it as precedent. The mystery is which Justice(s) in the Encino majority (Thomas, Roberts, Kennedy, Alito, Gorsuch) wanted this in the opinion, and why.